Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ugly is as Ugly Does

PZ Myers makes excuses in the wake of a poor debating performance

PZ Myers is absolutely correct when he describes his debate with Kirk Durston at the University of Alberta last night as "ugly".

But considering that Myers himself was the contributor of a great deal of that ugliness to that debate, one should think that he doth protest too bloody much.

Today in a post on his blog, Pharyngula, Myers essentially makes excuses for his poor performance in the debate last night -- and for the record, while he clearly out-shone Durston on the topic of science, his refusal to debate the actual topic of debate can't be looked at as anything other than a default.

In particular, Myers takes exception to Durston's previously-mentioned suggestion that states in which a core value was atheism was responsible for more state-perpetrated mass murders than states in which any religion was a core value.

(Durston described a core value as any value from which a state's other values are derived. Certainly, this is nothing if not an extremely cumbersome definition, but it does work.)

In order to justify that claim, Durston relies on the work of Rudolph Rummel, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii.

Myers essentially claims that if Rummel himself doesn't state that idea in his thesis, then his work can't be used to support it -- tantamount to suggesting that Albert Einstein's theory of relativity couldn't be used to build atomic bombs because Einstein disagreed with them.

And certainly, Myers is right when he notes that Durston's "atheist core value society" argument is nowhere to be found in Rummel's work -- or is at lest very difficult to find. What Rummel's work does provide, however, is the source material that Durston used to draw that conclusion.

In a table of democides -- which Rummel defines as combining genocide with mass murder -- Rummel ranks the states with the largest body counts throughout history, ranking them from deka-murderers to centi-kilomurderers. This table is pictured to the right.

An examination of the top five -- the dekamurderers -- alone confirms the basis for Durston's argument. Three of the five countries he lists as the top murderers in history -- The People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Cambodia and North Korea -- are in the top five.

This may confirm the basis for Durston's argument, but it doesn't justify the argument itself. For one thing, to describe Nazi Germany as a state in which atheism was a core principle would be flagrantly false. The Nazi party promoted a state religion that was based on a collection of source material, ranging from far eastern spiritualism to bizarre occultism.

Moreover, it would be remiss to overlook the religious -- notably Christian -- overtones of European colonialism. Colonialism was treated by many leaders as a mission from god to deliver Christianity around the globe, and claim what they insisted God had created for them.

Think of the priest in The Four Feathers blessing British soldiers going off to fight the insurrection in Sudan telling them that "God has blessed the British race" with its empire.

But Myers, who accused Durston of peddling "bad history" during the debate, moves on to peddle more bad history himself in the course of his debate post-mortem blog entry.

First off, he claims that atheism was not a core principle of Marxism. This is flagrantly false. Karl Marx denounced religion as an "opiate of the masses" -- a false consciousness-inducing ideology that would have to be cast away in order for the allegedly inevitable revolution of the proletariat to come.

It was actually Vladimir Lenin who rejected the need for institutionalized atheism in his 1905 essay, "Socialism and Religion". While this would seem to invalidate the assertion that atheism was a core principle of the Soviet Union, one would have to remember what took place under Joseph Stalin's regime.

Stalin took advantage of pressure being applied on the Soviet government by organizations such as the League of the Militant Godless -- whose slogan was "the fight for godlessness is a fight for socialism" -- to justify changing the Soviet Constitution in 1936. He entrenched the anti-religious cause within the Constitution of the USSR.

This was done so Stalin could nationalize Church lands. Although Stalin made concessions to the Russian Orthodox Church during the second world war -- the Church was instrumental in re-casting the struggle against the Nazis as the Great Patriotic War -- the state continued to spread anti-religious propaganda through the Soviet Department of External Church relations and the KGB.

Even the more relatively moderate regime of Nikita Kruschev mandated the registration of religious groups with the Soviet government.

Entrenching atheism within the Soviet Constitution established it as a core value of that state. Myers is as wrong as he could possibly be to try to pretend otherwise.

Myers also lobbed an accusation at Durston that he was "poisoning the well" by even bringing this up in the first place. This is arguably a valid point. Then again, individuals like Christopher Hitchens have been arguing that religion is responsible for the most killings of any social force in human history -- the point that Durston was actually trying to refute.

If Durston was indeed poisoning the well, he shouldn't be excused for dumping more poison into an already-poisoned well. But by the same token, he didn't poison it first.

Myers also mischaracterizes one of Durston's key arguments. Myers insists that Durston claimed the Flavian testimony of Jesus is evidence of Jesus Christ's divinity. In fact, Durston claimed that the rapid spread of Christianity in the period immediately following Christ's death -- not more than a hundred years later, as Myers claimed -- is evidence that many people believed Jesus had risen from the grave. The Flavian testimony is believed by many to confirm this.

Myers did excel at his scientific arguments. His rebuttal to the argument that Intelligent Design is necessary to explain the complexity within nature was admirably elegant: that simplicity and efficiency, not complexity, are the hallmarks of good design.

But listening to Myers debate -- and his reliance on the "donkey's laugh" -- makes it plainly obvious where some of his admirers get their rhetorical "skills" from.

The debate was ugly. Mostly because neither individual came to the table with any thing terribly ground-breaking to say, and only one of them (Durston) bothered to actually debate the topic they had both agreed to.

Myers' hands were every bit as dirty as his opponent's in making the debate between himself and Kirk Durston an ugly affair.


It seems like Myers may be uncomfortable with his own conduct during the debate. Coming in additional commentary thrown in at the end of his blog post:
"It was Durston's first words that were insulting and illogical — a shot at calling atheists evil. I suppose if I'd opened by announcing that Christians were all stupid, we would have had equivalency…but I did not.

And yes, we talked past each other the whole time. The debate topic was far too broad, I thought we were going to argue about the evidence for design, but Durston wiggled away and talked about anything but.
Anyone who was actually at the debate can say for a fact that this is untrue.

In fact, Myers opened his remarks by saying (roughly paraphrased) "do leprecauns exist? This is the same thing. This is crap."

Apparently, in Myers' mind, expressing his sheer contempt for the beliefs of others doesn't qualify as calling them stupid, as long as he doesn't say so in those explicit words.

Furthermore, if Myers was unsatisfied with the topic of the debate, he should have done exactly what Kenneth Hynek said he should have -- he should have declined the debate.

Other bloggers writing on this topic:

Lawrence A Moran - "Kirk Durston vs PZ Myers"

Kenneth Hynek - "PZ Myers Should Have Skipped the Debate"


  1. Greetings. I'm a frequent visitor of PZ's blog, and chanced upon your comments on the debate post.

    Don't worry - I don't mean to pick a fight, though I am fascinated with your explanation of Stalin's use of atheism to solidify his foothold on Soviet politics (At least that's what I've come to understand).

    I cannot help but remember my college history lessons wherein they explained why Oda Nobunaga was such a reviled warlord during Japan's Sengoku period: Aside from introducing largscale use of firearms into the conflict, he was also responsible for the establishment of Christianity in Japan.

    Not so much a change of spirituality, but rather as a means of decreasing the authority of the local Buddhist monasteries had - they were a large and influential enough group at the time to be a real threat to the warlords.

    And lastly, I draw upon my own country's colonization under the Spanish which, as summed up by our historians, was a quest for God, Gold, and Glory; A religiously charged mission that would grant Spain prestige among its European neighbors, which giving them an alternative route to the Moluccas, which back then was dominated by the Portugese.

    Nice analysis of PZ's debate by the way, and my sympathies for your drawing the ire of some of the more...intense...Pharyngulites.

    Hope to see you around - cheers!

  2. You're precisely right about those things.

    I addressed colonialism in this post. The religious overtones of colonialism are, as you say, unmistakable.

    Not to mention the relationship between various religions -- not just Christianity, but clearly also Shinto during the WWII era -- and the state in Japan.

    Religion was a core value of both colonialism and Imperialist Japan. Thus, by Durston's own reasoning, we would have to consider religion at least partially responsible for the things that happened under each.

    That's why this question of whether or not more people have been killed by atheism or religion is an inspid question. It's one of the points I mean to make in this post, but giving Dr Myers a little history lesson is clearly the overall intent.

    I wouldn't argue that Durston's analysis is perfect, but rather that, given the assumptions that he's made, that his reasoning is sound, even if the conclusions are not entirely true.

    In the debate, I wasn't impressed with either man. But when it comes to science, I definitely prefer Dr Myers.

    And don't worry about the Parynguliutes. I've long been accustomed to dealing with sycophants who can't stand it when you criticize their hero.

    Hope to see you again. Peace.

  3. Anonymous1:33 PM

    So, um, the chart you post looks a bit fishy to me. Neither the USA nor Indonesia are included (the one because of the Natives, the other because of Timor). For that matter neither is Australia. I'm also not too clear on who the 1.5 million that Poland killed in 1945 are?

  4. It isn't my table.

    This is the table containing the figures that Durston used to support his argument.

    I've already gone over some of the errors in Durston's argument even based on the table.

    I'd imagine that the United States and Australia are included under Colonialism.

    As for Indonesia, it seems that a minimum of eight years of the genocide there is included in the figures.

    Considering that Rummel has already annotated his findings in order to add more victims already, I wouldn't be shocked to see it happen again in the future.

  5. Anonymous3:39 PM

    Yah, well, if I worked for the Polish Consulate (and I don't) I'd sue for defamation. It's a pretty serious thing to accuse a country of a mass murder that it didn't commit. Especially a country that had just lost 16% of its population, including 17 thousand to a Soviet mass execution (Katyn), and 200 000 to a failed uprising in the capital city. Durston sounds like a right schmuck to me.

  6. Interesting idea, but one has to keep in mind that during the time period in question the Polish government was a Soviet-installed satellite, a puppet state.

    Considering the current Polish government responsible for what happened in that time period would be tantamount to holding the German or Russian governments responsible for the activities of the Nazis and the Soviets.

  7. Anonymous7:34 AM

    Even so, accusing a people who had just been traumatized beyond compare by WW2 and had seen all of their Jewish countrymen and women murdered of committing yet another genocide just afterward is, well, insensitive at best. Check out "The Pianist". The last scenes --the ones that show the devastated cities -- convey what the place looked like after the Nazis and the Soviets got through with it. The idea that the Poles would then go off and murder a few million people for the hell of it is insulting.

    I was able to find one thing: There was a forcible deportation of both Germans and Ukranians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Wisła

    The Czechs did something similar, btw.

    But in none of these cases were millions (or even thousands) of people murdered.

    I think I may point this out to the Polish Embassy in Ottawa to see if they want to take action against Durston for slander.

  8. Durston isn't in an actionable position, and neither is Rummel.

    You're talking about the activities of a government that no longer exists, and one that existed in a historical era in which Soviet satellites were known to engage in political violence and state terrorism.

    Evidently all you're interested in doing is trying to create trouble for Durston.

    But I'd advise you that trying to put the Polish consulate up to such an ill-concieved slander suit would actually make you vulnerable to a counter-suit.


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